I’ll always remember the first time I went to Mana Pools. Our travel group consisted of four English girls, all in their early twenties and all visiting Africa for the first time: me, my sister who was visiting from England, my friend Jackie who, like me, was a volunteer teacher in a rural Zimbabwean school (read about that here) and her friend Kate, also visiting from England.
Jackie had persuaded a local farmer to lend us his ancient pick up which we were very excited about. Usually we got around Zimbabwe by hitch-hiking or public transport but you couldn’t hitch-hike to Mana Pools National Park, there just wasn’t enough traffic going there.
There wasn’t any public transport either and we definitely couldn’t afford the charter flight which I took on my last visit to Kanga Camp in Mana Pools. Today the $300 return flight from Harare to Mana Pools in a six-seater plane seems like a good deal but that would have been a few month’s salary for me back then. An unthinkable expenses, even if it did turn a seven hour bumpy car ride into a one hour flight.
So having a car of our own was brilliant, even if it was just a beaten up old farm truck. We were filled with youthful enthusiasm, invincible and ready for adventure.
We loaded the pick up with basic cooking equipment and a tent (all borrowed from the same farmer) plus enough food to keep us going for a few days then off we set.
It must have been a long journey with at least one overnight stop on the way but I can’t remember any of that. No doubt the roads were terrible too, but all I can recall is how worried I was that the rusty old jalopy would break down before we got to Mana Pools thus scuppering my dreams of seeing what sounded like the most amazing wilderness area in Africa and all the animals who lived there.
As we bounced over ruts and pot holes with a constant rush of hot air and thick dust flying in the open windows all I could do was pray that we would make it to Mana Pools. It was like the promised land. A mythical place I simply had to get to.
I spent a year in Zimbabwe and visited pretty much the whole country but Mana Pools was the one place I dreamed of visiting most, partly because it was so hard to get to, but also because it sounded magical. This was a place where nature and animals ruled and man could only visit for a few months each year during the dry season. It still is.
But the pickup was clearly not in a good way. It clanked and groaned, barely started a few times and generally made it clear that while it could just about handle driving round the farm looking for lost cows it wasn’t up for days of driving on rutted, pot-hole ridden roads.
I think sheer will power actually got us to Mana Pools though. Finally we turned off the main road and started down the track through the national park that led to the campsite where we would stay.
But half way there was a bitter smell and we noticed smoke seeping out from under the bonnet. We stopped the car, jumped out, opened the bonnet, saw that the engine was on fire and threw the contents of our water bottles on the flames.
Things didn’t look good. We were miles from the main road, just as far from the camp site and stranded on a dirt road in a place famous for its wild animals. It was late afternoon and it wouldn’t be safe to walk to the campsite or back to the road so it looked as if we were truly stuck.
We did the only thing possible. We tried to start the engine again and miraculously it juddered back to life. We drove slowly off in the direction of the campsite, because now we were so close to Mana Pools, I was even more determined than ever to get there.
We got another mile or so down the track before smoke started seeping out of the engine again.
It was soon put out by the remaining water from our water-bottles but this time the pick up would not start again and now we’d run out of water too.
After 60 minutes of anxiety, of debating if we should start peeing in our water bottles already and/or if two of us should walk for help, and if so whether they should head back to the road, or on to the campsite, we heard a rumble.
We stopped arguing and generally carrying on like the frightened little girls we were and we listened, our heads tilted to one side and all our energy focused on deciding if it really was a car we could hear.
It was, and of course the car stopped and the driver rescued us because he had to. You cannot leave four young ladies stranded in the wild with dusk on the way and two thousand predators hiding all around waiting to pounce. Game walks are permitted in Mana Pools but they are not recommended without a guide and never at night.
Our savior took us to the Mana Pools campsite on the banks of the Zambezi and we set up our tent.
So we spent two amazing nights in Mana Pools. It wasn’t exactly care free because we didn’t know how we’d ever be able to leave again and we did know that the farmer would be very angry.
We cooked some horrid camp mush that passed as food and fell asleep exhausted in the hot, cramped tent. It wasn’t long before we were woken by a terrible clashing and crashing of metal. We peeked out heads out of our tent in the direction of the fire where we’d cooked and where the noise was coming form.
In the weak light of our torch we saw a pair of hyena gnashing away at our saucepan and wooden spoon. One of them turned to look at us and his eyes beamed red. We zipped our tent back up tightly and eventually fell to sleep again.
The next day the saucepan was just a mangled piece of metal, as useless as the pick up truck. The wooden spoon had vanished altogether.
There were other visitors too. A hippo came stumbling around the campsite the next night and the farmer’s son arrived the day after that and towed the pick up away.
We were left to scrounge lifts back to the main road from the other campers before hitch-hiking back to school to start teaching again.
It wasn’t ideal but we made it to Mana Pools and we made it home alive.
I did some stupid things while I was on my first safari but I’m not the only one. While I was staying at Mana Pools recently a guide told me he’s seen tourists swimming in the hippo and crocodile-infested Zambezi River which makes me look like a smart traveler.
And I suppose in a way I am. Because I traveled when travel seemed impossible. I kept my eye on my dream destination and I got there, even when it seemed impossible. And, although you could say the trip was a disaster, in so many ways it’s enriched my life with stories of adventure. Crazy stupid stories they maybe but they are stories I’ll always remember.
Here are a few dos and don’ts the next time you go on safari from someone who learnt many of them the hard way along with some extra tips from Sean, one of my super safari guides from Kanga Camp:
1. Don’t park or camp under a sausage tree – those suckers are heavy and death by sausage would be a sorry end.
2. Do seek shade for camping, you’ll need it during the heat of the day.
3. Do wear neutral or light colors clothing for your walking safari.
4. Don’t wear vests with trillions of pockets, a safari suit or a pith helmet. Save those white Africa fantasies for a theme party at home. I had a great safari party once with people coming as elephants, leopards and lions but safari suits looks a bit silly out in Africa unless you’re a real life safari guide of course.
5. Don’t put your seat-belt on. There is no windscreen and no windows in most safari trucks and there certainly aren’t any seat-belts. But that won’t stop you for reaching for the seat-belt every time you sit in the truck. It’s a hard habit to break.
6. Do take you rubbish home. Pack it in and pack it out in any national parks and definitely don’t stuff your rubbish down a long drop toilet. That’s about as selfish and stupid as it gets.
7. Don’t forget you’re in Africa and these are real, wild, unpredictable animals. The elephants at Kanga Camp almost seemed tame at times as did the lions but they aren’t so keep well away.
8. Do stay more thank two crocodile lengths away from river banks. Nile crocodiles, like the ones you find in the Zambezi River, can grow up to 14 foot long and pounce twice their body length. Yikes.
9. Don’t swim in the Zambezi River. If the crocs don’t get you the hippos will yet still my guide Sean has seen people swimming in it.
10. Do carry five liters of water per person in hot temperatures. The temperature in Mana Pools will probably be in the forties so you’ll need a hat, long sleeves and suntan lotion as well as lots of water.
11. Don’t walk around at night. Ever. The predators rule at night and even in the day time there could be a leopard in the treetops right above you.
12. Do spray yourself with diluted Dettol to repel teste fly if you’re in the Mopane woodlands. You’ll smell like a public toilet but that’s better than getting sleeping sickness.
13. Don’t get between a hippo and the water, or an elephant mum and her baby.
14. Do have a CB radio in case you breakdown or someone gets sick. Mobile phone reception is patchy at best.
15. Don’t run. Whatever happens don’t run, lions love the chase so if you run they will run after you. Plus you’ll probably just fall over or hurt yourself because there are thorn bushes, underground burrows and fallen branches everywhere.
16. Do take a first aid kit.
17. Don’t leave your lights on in your tent – to conserve energy and avoid attracting bugs.
18. Do keep your tent zipped up at all times – or you might get a nasty surprise waiting for you inside, including but not limited to snakes, lizards, bats and spiders.
19. Don’t hunt. It’s horrible to learn that hunting is still legal and happening all over Africa. I simply cannot understand why anyone would want to shoot and kill a lion, buffalo, elephant or any other wild animal but people do and they can. But just because you can do something it doesn’t mean you should. So please don’t hunt the animals. Love them, don’t hurt them.
20. Do shoot wildly with your camera. You’ll never capture the full beauty of the bush, the silence of the wilderness or the feeling of serenity you get on safari but your photos will give you some small pleasure when you get home again.
Have you got any safety tips or dos and don’ts for people going on safari? Or maybe you’ve got a random what not to do while travelling story to share. Leave a comment, we’d love to read it.
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